Denis O’Sullivan came to be regarded as the world’s foremost authority on Irish music
In September 1898, the Skibbereen Eagle newspaper ran a famous editorial that declared: “We will still keep our eye on the Emperor of Russia and on all such despotic enemies, whether at home or abroad, of human progression and man’s natural rights . . .”
More than a century later this is still one of Skibbereen’s most celebrated international connections. But while the paper had its disapproving eye on the shenanigans of the Tsar Nicholas II, others in the west Co Cork town were looking in a more westerly direction – to San Francisco, where a young operatic baritone with roots in Skibbereen was making his name in the highest musical circles.
Philip O’Regan has written to tell us about Denis O’Sullivan, better known around Skibbereen as Singing Sullivan. He was born in San Francisco in 1868; his father, Cornelius O’Sullivan, emigrated to the United States in 1845, on the eve of the Famine.
Cornelius has an operatic life story of his own. When he arrived in the US he worked in a cotton broker’s office, in New Orleans, but was soon seduced by the siren song of the California gold rush. He set off for Panama, crossed the isthmus and arrived in San Francisco in the autumn of 1849.
An article in the Gazette in Berkeley, California, takes up the tale: “O’Sullivan had only $2.50 when he reached California. For $1.50 he was able to get a bunk for the night on the old sailing ship Niantic. His last dollar he spent on a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.”
With two fellow Irishmen Cornelius O’Sullivan worked for several months on a claim that was expected to yield a fortune, only to be disappointed. When O’Sullivan collapsed from scurvy, his companions left him whatever meagre provisions they had and set out on foot for Sacramento.
Prepared to shoot
Shortly afterwards, the “Robin Hood” of the gold rush, the Mexican outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, came upon the injured man and prepared to shoot him. Then he realised O’Sullivan was probably dying anyhow – and decided not to waste a bullet.
Within a week, O’Sullivan’s companions returned with food and medicine. Restored to health, Cornelius opened a general store, which became a great success. In 1854, he married a Skibbereen girl, Mary Ann Sullivan, whose uncle owned a cotton gin in Louisiana. They had two children, Denis and John; John was also a fine performer, although not as successful as his brother.
Philip O’Regan writes: “Like his father before him, Denis O’Sullivan was very generous to Skibbereen. At the height of his career, when he was filling many of the most famous Grand Old Opera houses and theatres in Britain and America, he still found time to make his way to Skibbereen. For five consecutive years, the famous baritone and actor made his way ‘home’ and gave recitals at the town hall, with the entire proceeds going to the local branch of the St Vincent de Paul society.”
After a hugely successful series of concerts in London in 1901, the London Times pronounced O’Sullivan to be “one of the illustrious singers of the world”. He was stricken with appendicitis while filling an engagement in Ohio in 1908. He collapsed after the performance and died that night, at the early age of 39.
Denis O’Sullivan was regarded as the foremost authority on Irish music in the world. He was a Feis Ceoil adjudicator, vocalist, delegate and speaker to the Pan-Celtic Congress in Dublin, and was a delegate to the Irish national convention in 1907. At the Feis Ceoil competition every year, one of the most coveted prizes is the Denis O’Sullivan medal, which is awarded “for the best rendering of two Irish songs of contrasting character in English or Gaelic, ancient or modern, original or arranged, provided the spirit and form are Irish”.
“I wonder are there any relatives of the famous ‘Singing Sullivans’ still living in this area?” Philip O’Regan asks. “I’d love to know.”
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Celebrated baritone Denis O’Sullivan, in whose memory the Feis Ceoil awards a medal each year